Computer Specifications, Recommendations & Suggestions

Plus: How to evaluate your needs.

By Jerry Erbesfield

Last Revised: 11-2001

For the past several years my career has been spent in technology, specifically, computers. I have a rather large sphere of influence with lots of friends and business acquantances knowing of my experience and background in this area. As a result, I'm often asked for my advice, recommendations and suggestions for computer equipment and computer configurations. It can almost be a curse sometimes! As you’ll see why here, these are not easy question to answer spontaneously and on the spot, - so I’m furnishing them to you here in this multi-page publication. In this article you’ll find my Computer Specifications, Recommendations and Suggestions, plus I’ve given my advice, whatever that’s worth to you, on how to evaluate your needs.

I don’t really like to make recommendations because when something goes wrong, as it inevitably does with computers, sometimes either people tend to hold me responsible, or I feel responsible for it. I don’t like that feeling at all so I try to stay away from making recommendations altogether. However, in the context of the forum of this Intranet website, I have the ability to cover the subject thoroughly and to list a disclaimer and a caveat first, so I WILL, after listing my disclaimer and caveats below, give you a complete and thorough opinion and recommendation.

My Disclaimer: These recommendations are only MY recommendations and only MY one personal opinion. Other persons may have other opinions that may differ from mine. Some of those may be very good opinions too. You should seek out other opinions, study them, take them into account, and then make YOUR OWN decision.  I in no way will be held responsible or feel responsible for YOUR choices and/or YOUR mistakes, directly or indirectly. You are responsible for your own actions. I specifically disclaim ANY responsibility for what will have to be your own personal decision in the end. These specs, recommendations and opinions are furnished solely as a courtesy for those that might wish to use them in an overall selection process.

Now. That being said, here are my recommendations and the thought processes that I use to help you understand them:

The following is what I have found to be good choices and should help you with sound decision-making when shopping for a computer for personal real estate productivity and for other general-purpose use. There are two sections to this article, one on desktop computer systems and the other on Laptop systems. It will be necessary to read them both to make an informed decision. Some background and indoctrination is necessary so that you’ll understand the terminology and so that you’ll be able to follow the thought process. I’ll try to clue you in as I go. Here goes:

About Desktop Computers and Name Brands:

With regard to desktop type computers, I personally purchase only "no-name", non-proprietary, “clone” equipment - for myself personally and for the company. I do not believe that the name brand of a computer is near as important as other factors such as support issues, the time necessary to turn-around a repair, the hassle quotient, replacement parts availability, interchangeability and cost. The actual component parts and specs of what’s inside is what’s most important, not the name on the case outside.

In relationship to computers systems, “clone” means: That it’s a copy of the original IBM PC architecture, that conforms to certain industry wide accepted standards and measures of conformity and that the individual components that make up the clone computer universally interchange with and fit other clone models. There’s usually no (real) manufacturer’s brand name label on the case of a clone. Clones are assemblies of several other manufacturer’s components, installed into a standardized universal case. Usually a decal or plate is added to the case with a name that the Mom and Pop type of store selling it came up with rather than a real manufacturer’s brand name. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. There are a few major national assemblers of clone desktop computers. Good examples would be Dell and Gateway. While they do have their name stuck on the case, AND the case is custom designed to have a unique look to it, generally speaking their computer's internal architecture is the clone industry standard.

Clones are composed of multiple individual components, assembled into a single system unit, that make up the complete system assembly. The individual parts are universally interchangeable between like clones of similar specs, meaning parts will universally exchange between and/or install from one clone PC to another clone PC of similar architecture even though the parts might be of higher/lower performance or larger/smaller capacity. A simplified way to think about it is to compare the computer to an older fashioned stereo “console” radio/record player system versus a modern stereo “component” system.

The stereo console system - The stereo “console” system is usually a nicely sculpted single unit piece of furniture. However, if you purchase a stereo console system with the amplifier, tuner, turntable, tape deck and other parts all built into it’s single custom cabinet, made only by that one specific manufacturer, any replacement parts must be specifically made for and must fit in the console exactly or they won’t work (in most cases). Only that one manufacturer is going to have the replacement part that will fit that specific manufacturer and/or model. Costs are higher, the wait for replacement parts is longer and new improved technology that may come along as little as a few months to a year later probably may not be able to be incorporated into it. The term for this description is called “proprietary”.


The stereo component system - On the other hand, a stereo “component” system, is flexible and allows for mix and match. A component system is a system where each individual piece usually sits on a shelf rather than being made into a single custom cabinet and is one where each part is separate and individual unto itself. Each component is designed to universally interchange and plug into and interact with each other, so that you can mix and match components to suit your needs or to upgrade as better features, or technological improvements come along.  The term for this description is called “non-proprietary”.

For this comparison, the stereo console system is the name brand computer and the clone is the component system. You can draw the same comparisons and conclusions for both types of computer systems.

The major basic parts of a computer are: the case, the motherboard, the hard drive, the ram memory, the video card and a floppy drive. Of course other parts and accessories are available but these are the major components. In a true clone these parts are interchangeable and therefore are much more readily (and locally) available, through multiple different suppliers, at usually much lower prices, with little if any loss in quality or performance.

When purchasing computer equipment, regardless of name brand, proprietary verses non-proprietary should be the major consideration. Clones are non-proprietary and are what you want. Many of the name brand computers are at least partially proprietary. To you this translates that when you purchase name brand equipment, you’ll most likely have to go to that specific one name brand manufacturer for parts and service, meaning that because their factory or warehouse is most likely NOT here in the Atlanta metro area, you’ll have to wait for the parts, and or service, at the very least overnight and usually longer. Additionally, proprietary name brand computers almost always cost more for replacement parts – sometimes lots more, plus shipping! While many computer superstores ARE authorized to fix the proprietary models they sell, they don’t often stock much in the way of parts for these models, because they become obsolete so quick with the fast obsolesce that occur daily in the computer world - and because the parts usually fit ONLY that one unique proprietary model. With the non-proprietary computer systems, the exact opposite is true. Because of the interchangeability between clones and because of their immense popularity, parts are readily available at numerous super stores and also at the small mom and pop type operations all over the place. You can find parts for a clone almost anywhere but you must go to the one specific maker’s source for stuff to fit many of the name brand proprietary systems.

You must be careful even with some of the makers that claim to have clone systems. In my opinion, some of the big manufacturers are deceptive in their practices with regard to this area. They say their systems are non-proprietary when that is not altogether true. I can’t mention brand names here but I can tell you that common areas of non-fitting special order parts on many of the brand names are very proprietary (and very expensive) brackets that cost over TEN times the cost of clone brackets, that must be used to mount drives in the case, instead of the under $1.00 a set brackets used for a true clone that are available at almost any computer store. Overall, clone equipment far outsells any one name brand now, mainly for the cost and convenience reasons I’ve disclosed here.

The following are the suggested computer hardware specs that I recommend for a desktop computer:

NOTE: At the end of this section you’ll find a short recap of the below details.

 Type of system: I recommend that you purchase a non-proprietary clone system - or a brand name system that is a "genuine" non-proprietary clone system.

 Case: A. medium tower case with a 230 watt or higher power supply.

 3 sizes are normally available: mini, medium and a full tower case. The mini, while less expensive, is too small with too little room for expansion and it is also tight and hard to work in. The full tower case is too large and will be cumbersome, normally being used for heavy duty commercial applications like a network server. The medium tower case is just right, with plenty of room to work in and for expansion. The difference in price for all three is too little to be a real factor. Be careful to get a decent quality case though. There are some very “cheap” pieces out there. Compare. Internally a cheap case will have very thin metal, so thin that the edges could cut you, like a razor blade, and they also bend easily. Access to some component mounting areas may also be difficult. The good cases are heavy duty looking, with thicker edges that won’t cut and with better access design.

 Motherboard: Intel Chipset, BX level or better. 100 or 133 bus speed, depending on your budget.

 A computer is made up of several component parts including various module printed circuit boards that fit inside the case. Most of these boards plug into the motherboard, which is the main and largest printed circuit board assembly in the computer. Bus speed is the number of “pipes” on the board that transmit information. These boards, with more “pipes”, provide more data thought-put and responsiveness. Theses motherboards also have jumpers that can be reset to upgrade the system to various speed CPU chips that you may desire in the future, so if on a budget, you can go with a more economically priced slower Megahertz chip for now and later upgrade to a faster chip when prices come down and you can afford it and if you later on feel the need for increased performance. You don’t have to replace the whole computer to upgrade with equipment like this. However, to upgrade, you MUST first have a motherboard that will accept the upgrade, so this is an important part of the process.

CPU chip:Intel” Pentium III or Pentium IV name brand only, and as fast as your budget will allow.

 A CPU is the primary logic chip in the computer. While there are sometimes fifty to a hundred chips inside a computer, the CPU is the main brain. An 800 MHz full Intel system is a comfortable speed to me. Chips of these speeds are also very affordable now a days because they have been produced and around for so long now. 1700 MHz. (1.7 GHz.) chips are now available but the costs are so high and they are so new that I don’t believe it is a wise investment right now. The Intel “Celeron” chips (a budget model) are also made in various megahertz speeds. They don’t have as much “cache” (a form of memory storage for often run programs) but they work well and are more affordable if you are on a budget. I recommend ONLY "Intel" brand name CPU chips. Though there has been a lot of hype with other chips, my experience with the other bargain priced chips has been so-far, less than  satisfactory overall. Intel is still the “undisputed’ leader, in my humble opinion. AMD has made great strides, and if you are on a strict budget, you might consider one of these, especially if you are looking at a slower speed. For the top end though, I'm strictly a believer in Intel. The chip price/quality also indicates to what level the rest of the computer might be built to, meaning built to a quality standard - or built to a price standard. It is your call - and possibly your hassle later on if you don't do it right! DON'T BE TOO FRUGAL! 

Fan: Purchase a good quality fan for the CPU.

A little miniature fan clips right on the CPU chip itself, to help keep it cool and last longer. Runs whenever the computer is turned on. At the high temperatures these power packed chips run, it is imperative to have a cooling fan to cool them. Without a fan, the chip will overheat and stop working. Continued computer use without a working CPU cooling fan will otherwise simply burn itself up.  Cost - about $9.00 to $12.00 anywhere.

Ram Memory (Random Access Memory): 128Kb minimum with 256Kb the recommended level. Even more is better.

Kb = kilobyte

As a measure of computer memory or storage, a kilobyte (KB or Kbytes) is approximately a thousand bytes (actually, 2 to the 10th power, or decimal 1,024 bytes).

The requirement for more and more RAM memory regularly keeps increasing as the operating system and program requirement demands increase. In today's computer environment, such as with the advent of the new Windows XP operating system, you need at least 128 Kb of RAM or you can expect to experience problems such as slow operation, locking up, and re-booting with anything less. The good thing though is that along with the higher requirements for more RAM, prices for it have come down dramatically.

Many programs that have been released over the past couple of years require so much of this memory that it’s almost insane not stock up now and to purchase all that you can afford. 128 Kb is the minimum and at today’s prices, is available for approximately $50-60.00. 256 Kb of RAM is much better and still affordable at today’s reduced RAM costs. Most computers will accommodate even more RAM. You can’t have too much RAM and you should install as much as is necessary (up to the limits of your computer’s capacity) to run your programs in a comfortable, snappy and reliable manner. Your programs will only access the amount of RAM they need. There are several different types of RAM memory available but today most PIII systems on sale today use SDRAM, though other new architectures such as "Rambus" are available - and even required on certain Pentium IV computers.

Hard Drive: IDE type, Minimum 20 Gig – up to as large as will fit the budget.

The size depends on your budget and the amount of software you’re going to load on your system. A hard drive is a storage device where the programs you use and run are stored. Unless you have some pretty heavy-duty needs such as CAD (Computer Automated Design) or you’re a Georgia Tech Math freak (genius), carrying out computations to the gazillionth degree with gigantically complex programming, a 20 Gigabyte hard drive should do for most real estate persons. 40 Gigs would give you expansion space for some time to come based on today’s program sizes and storage needs. Hard drive manufacturers now produce IDE hard drives in sizes up to approximately 100 Gigabytes! Of course if you have a teenager that also uses the computer and that’s regularly surfing the Internet downloading games and other junk stuff every day and not cleaning it up afterward, no amount of storage space is enough! Western Digital, Seagate and Maxtor are all three good, fast, popular hard drive name brands and are the ones I use regularly. The access speed is what is important and is measured in Mps. 10 Mps. is an excellent number and 13 Mps. is acceptable. IDE is one of two architectures, the other being SCSI. SCSI is sometimes a little faster under certain circumstances but is also more expensive and not at all necessary for normal or even heavy-duty individual workstation usage. SCSI is more often used on a system set up as a server. The RPM (Rounds per minute of the electric motor that powers the hard drive) is another factor. 5400RPM has been the standard with 7200 RPM now available. Of course faster is ALWAYS better in anything to do with computers!

Floppy Drive: One 3 1/2 inch floppy drive.

There are many good recognizable name brands on the market. Most all are okay. Even well known Sony makes them - but I use mostly Mitsumi. Haven’t had one fail yet and the cost is very reasonable - approximately $30.00. 5 ¼ floppy drives are not used and not necessary in most cases any longer.

Video Graphics Card: 16 Megabyte AGP video graphics card (minimum).

More megabytes are available but more megabytes costs more. It is up to your budget. However, more is not really that necessary for normal real estate or similar work. AGP is an architecture construction of a slot that is provided for this type of card. Most modern computers now furnish motherboards that accept AGP video cards. If you purchase a PCI video card (that uses a PCI slot) it could waste a slot that could be used and needed for another type of card. AGP is ONLY for video cards.

If the computer were to be used for gaming, CAD (computer automated design) or for graphics or graphics design, of course you would then need higher memory capacity video card. They make video cards in 32, 64, 128 and even larger memory configurations. There are other video considerations but  in that this article is intended primarily for typical real estate professionals needs, I will not go into that great of a detail.

Mouse:  Any PS2 mouse.

I use a Mitsumi scroll mouse. It is shaped and operates similar to the $65.00 Microsoft mouse and works every bit as well. It has a button in the middle that when pressed one way or the other, it will scroll through the text of a document. Really neat! Plugs into the PS2 port on the back of the computer, just like any other normal mouse. Cost is approximately $12.00 and it is available at many discount Mom and Pop outlets as well as the CompUSA's Circuit City's, Targets and Etc. Any mouse will do as long as it is a “Microsoft compatible ps2 mouse”.

Keyboard: 104 Key Windows 95 Keyboard.

I also use the one made by Mitsumi - and sometimes others when I can’t find the Mitsumi. It has a standard layout, the Windows 95 keys that pop up certain Windows menus, has a soft touch “rubber membrane” technology, and the Mitsumi version costs only $19.00. It’s sturdy, slim and light weight The older fashioned mechanical click keyboards are available also if you prefer this feel but they usually cost at least twice as much and even up to $120.00 for some (in my opinion) exotically wasteful models. They are also heavier and bulkier which is a concern if you ever handle your keyboard and put it in your lap, which I sometimes do. 

Modem:  External 56k v.90 external US Robotics Sportster. An internal modem  is also okay but external modems are much easier to deal with when you have a problem. To me, this is one thing that is worth the extra cost.

I have seen costs range for decent modems from a low of about $55.00, to up to $150.00 for a really good modems. The cost range depends on the particular brand name, whether it is internal or an external mounted modem and if it is a windows only modem. We have had very good service with and use almost exclusively, external US Robotics Sportster modems even though they are at the higher end of the price range for the modems suggested here. I suggest this particular modem because the US Robotics Sportster modem has: A).  An external volume control knob just like a radio so that the volume can be controlled by the user to be able to hear what is or is not going on. B). This external modem can also be turned off and back on independently with its externally mounted switch, effectively re-booting the modem if there is a communication problem rather than having to reboot the whole computer just to re-cycle the modem. C). Modems can be one of the more fragile pieces of computer equipment to deal with, requiring attention and sometimes replacement more often than other components. External modems are much easier to service and replace if one does goes bad. A computer must be partially disassembled to replace an internal modem. External modems are simply external plug and play. No technician and no tools necessary. If one of our modems does go out, we simply send a replacement to the affected office via our courier, saving us a trip by a support technician.

As an example of other modems, Smartlink is a manufacturer of modems that we’ve had good success with and it has a budget price. However, there are many other different name brand modems available too - and as long as it meets the main spec of the 56k v.90 standard you should be okay. v.90 is an industry standard that will insure that your modem will be compatible with the communication protocols you’ll need in most cases to use the Internet and communicate with the real estate listing services.

Most modems now-a-days come with Data and Fax communications software though I’ve yet to find a Fax program that is as easy to use and as reliable as a real FAX machine. Voice modems are now available to also do the function of an answering machine with mailboxes and all - but I don’t recommend them either. To use the FAX or voice answering functions, you must leave your whole computer system on and unattended all day while you are gone for these functions to work. This seems very wasteful and is overkill to me, especially for the telephone answering function, for a single user, when very good quality $50.00 to $60.00 answering machines are available that will do virtually the same job. I also personally use a $150.00 plain paper FAX machine instead of my computer and it works just dandy. Why run an entire computer system, putting unnecessary wear and tear on it and risk lightning or electrical surge striking your unattended machine, when there are reasonable and cost effective alternatives, that are not as difficult and as much of a hassle to deal with as FAX and Voice modems in a computer.

* IMPORTANT * - Do NOT purchase either a Windows only modem or a modem with a “Rockwell” chip in it. They may not give you the reliable service you expect. Though there have been occasions where they have worked, the FMLS listing service states that they are NOT compatible with the FMLS modems and it will give intermittent weird troubles, with the ONLY final fix being to replace it. Neither of the two above manufacturers use the Rockwell chip in their currently produced modems. You can easily see and read the name of the chip on an internal modem. It’s printed right on the biggest chip on the modem’s board. It’s a little harder on an external because it is in a plastic case. The documentation will usually tell you though. If not it must be taken apart to check - if your supplier will do that. If not or if your supplier does not otherwise know for sure what chip is used, DON’T BUY IT! It’s not worth the trouble you’ll go through if it does turn out to be a Rockwell chip. US Robotic Sportster modems don’t use the Rockwell chip. 

CD-ROM: 50, or even 60 X speed, internal ATAPI compliant CD-ROM drive.

Most of today’s software is now coming in the form of CD-ROM discs. It’s easier to handle, to install and today’s large programs will fit onto a single CD-ROM disc instead of multiple floppy disks. You don’t have to continuously keep changing diskettes during an install and some programs now often require 25 or so 3 1/2 “ diskettes to install! Mitsumi, Panasonic, Acer and Sony are the name brand manufacturers I use for this product. Other good CD-ROM drives are available also. I can’t tell too much difference between 50 to 60 X speeds CD-ROM’s though they’re obviously should be some measurable difference. These are the latest production drives and are available for a cost of about $50.00 to $70.00. These drives should be plenty fast enough for your needs. An IDE CD-ROM is the preferred architecture rather than one that uses an adapter interface card or other method of connecting. The IDE CD-ROM is faster and is directly supported and connected via the motherboard. It works just like your floppy drive and accesses the computer directly. Other type CD-ROM drive devices usually have to go through an adapter interface card, a sound card adapter socket or some other interface and that slows it down.

DVD is another optional type of drive that is also available and has become very popular. In addition to accommodating conventional CD-ROM discs, it will also play DVD discs for watching high quality full-length feature movies on your computer! You can rent a DVD movie now from Blockbuster and watch it on your computer! For reading normal computer data It operates somewhat more slowly than a regular CD-ROM disc drive and there are no real estate applications for DVD yet that I am aware of.  As a result, I don’t believe that a DVD is a requirement for this real estate professional. Purely optional (at up to a couple of hundred dollars extra cost).

Sound Card: 16bit up to 128 bits, Sound Blaster compatible, depending on budget, sound quality and bells and whistles desired.

 At present we have only a very few real estate applications that require the use of sound. However, the Internet IS full of sound content. Additionally, humans respond to sound (and color) prompts better than to text. Sound has become pretty much become a standard with personal computing now-a- days and for this reason I recommend a sound system on your computer. Good quality 16 up to 64 bit sound card are available for as little as  $20.00 to $40.00, with 128 bit premium level sound cards running up to $100.00 or so. An inexpensive 16 bit sound card will be suitable for many of us, but for the purest fanatic, the 128 bit high end job with all the extra premium software necessary to utilize the extra power is all that will do! 128 bit sound cards have more power, cleared reproduction, and more features and benefits. It is completely a personal preference and is your call. As long as it is “Sound Blaster compatible” you should be fine.

Speakers: 15-watt stereo, amplified with a volume control

Again, not too big a deal here either in my opinion. For my computer I use only a little inexpensive (under $20.00) no name brand, approximately 15-watt power rated amplified speaker set that tucks away out of the way next to and behind my monitor. They do everything I need them to do. The sound is crisp, clear and certainly loud enough for all but the gung ho enthusiast. Obviously the bigger and more powerful your speakers are, the bigger the boom. The big thing to me is that the speakers must have an easily accessible external volume control. It is an inconvenience and a hassle to go into the software every time an adjustment is necessary to the sound volume level. This area again would be a personal preference as to how far you go with speakers. 

Monitor: 15” to 17” .28 Dot Pitch resolution, non interlaced, with full horizontal and vertical edge to edge screen adjustment, electronic controls preferred, with full controls for all ways of screen adjustments. Some monitor manufacturers shortcut prices by leaving off some of the controls. Energy Star compliant is recommended and better monitors now carry this label. 

15” monitors are a normal size monitor for a desktop computer that will satisfy most basic needs, but a 17” monitor is a nice larger screen option that usually costs only about $50 to $75.00 more.

Cost – Good 15” to 17” monitors prices remain pretty static and range from a low of $125.00 to a high of $325.00 but the specs and results are NOT always so static. There’s an old axiom in retail “ If you can’t vary the price, vary the specs” - and I have found that this is used heavily by retailers and manufacturers with regard to computer monitors. Not all $250.00 monitors are the same. Be sure the one you purchase measures up to these minimum specs. The more and higher specs, the better. HOWEVER, do not overdo it. A 19” may be too big and a 21-inch monitor IS too big and has been proven that it could cause harm to your eyesight when regularly viewed as up close as you would view a 15” to 17” monitor. These extra large monitors are intended primarily for special purpose applications are usually used by graphics artist, for CAD CAM (drafting) and maybe for speakers or teachers displaying information to a small group.

Recap of the minimum recommended desktop computer specs:

  • Type of system: Purchase a non-proprietary clone system.

  • Case: A. medium tower case with a 230 watt or higher power supply.

  • Motherboard: Intel Chipset rated, BX level or better. 100 or 133 bus speed, depending on your budget.

  • CPU: Intel Pentium Intel” PIII, PIV name brand only, as fast as your budget will allow, 800 MHz. Up to 1.7 GHz.

  • Fan: Purchase a fan to cool the CPU.

  • Ram Memory: 128 Kb minimum. 256 Kb recommended, more if you can afford it. Leave a slot for later expansion.

  • Hard Drive: 20 Gigabytes minimum, IDE architecture, 40 Gigabytes recommended.

  • Floppy Drive: One 31/2-inch floppy drive.

  • Video card: 16 Megabyte AGP minimum.

  • Mouse:  Mitsumi name brand or any Microsoft compatible ps2 mouse.

  • Keyboard: 104 Key Windows 95 compatible Keyboard.

  • Modem: External 56k v.90 US Robotics Sportster modem recommended. * NO ROCKWELL CHIP!

  • CD-ROM:  50 or 60 X speed, IDE architecture.

  • Sound Card:  16bit, up to a 128 bit, depending on budget and sound quality. personal preference.

  • Speakers: 15 watt amplified, with an external volume control.

  • Monitor: 15” to 17” .28 dot pitch resolution, non interlaced, with full digital horizontal & vertical edge to edge screen adjustment and controls.

  • Network Interface Card - 10/100 speed, - Optional -  if you are connected to a network.

$750 to $900.00  – Should be the total approximate street price range , available at numerous outlets, for a nicely equipped basic system as generally described above.

$1,300.00 to $1,800.00 - Should be the total approximate street cost for a loaded, top of the specs system as described above using various combinations of the higher specs mentioned in this article.

About Laptop Computers:

 There are a lot of similarities and comparisons that can be drawn with desktop computers and Laptops.  Much of the preceding advice applies to laptops also. However, there are three major areas of difference and these three areas are gigantic considerations:

1). Cost - Laptops have come down drastically in the past few months  but can still cost more than 2 times more than a desktop, everything else being equal.

Laptop computers (and their replacement/upgrade parts) generally cost at least two times more money for the same level of performance as desktops. This can be an argumentative subject because though both a laptop and a desktop might have the same rated specs and advertised speeds, the desktop will out-perform a similar spec’ed laptop every time. A lot is lost in the miniaturization process. As a result of this, higher specs, if available, are necessary on a laptop to make it competitive in speed with a similar spec’ed out desktop.

2). Proprietary equipment - Laptops are highly proprietary and usually very unique to each manufacturer. While some minor number of components might be interchangeable between the same family of laptops, there is really no such thing as a “clone” with laptops.

Most all laptop computers are highly proprietary, meaning that the parts for repair, replacement and upgrade are usually specifically made only for that one specific make and model and also meaning that the hassle and time quotient goes way up when dealing with laptops.

3). Portability - Laptops are very portable. Desktops are not (duh!).

Laptops ARE very portable. This is not just a small advantage. It’s a huge one and the very reason it is the suggested computer configuration for real estate associates. You can carry a laptop with you and set up office virtually anywhere! This is especially useful for real estate agents - and their clients. With the highly reliable software that’s available today, you can virtually run every aspect of your business with a laptop from anywhere at any time. AND, to be able to show a client a picture of a home and the listing info direct from the front seat of your car is a tremendous advantage! However, a word of caution. The very thing that makes a laptop such an advantage also gives it a disadvantage too. Because it’s so portable, the likelihood of loss, theft and damage is much greater. Make sure that you’ve declared it on your homeowner’s insurance! A dropped Dell laptop computer recently cost us $1000.00 (parts only) to have repaired.

Clones as they compare to the desktop computer side of the industry, simply don’t exist in the laptop world (though a very few of the name brands may share some few common pieces). Additionally, you can pay a lot of extra money for that special name brand laptop label and not get anything any better, just like when you buy clothing popular name brand labels. Sometimes that piece of clothing is worth the extra (because it does something extra or is actually and factually better quality - and sometimes not). The “label” on a computer IS an important consideration though because some manufacturers simply consistently do a better job. "Bang for the buck" is what you look for most here though, without going overboard either way - and without being too over-shrewd. There is a lot of junk on the market too. Careful balance and careful investigation is the key. Take your time.

It’s important to shop around, just as you might when you buy a car. Look at several units before you buy. Demo it. Touch and feel. With desktops it’s not as important to do this but with laptops, it’s VERY important to do this. Generally speaking, the junky laptops feel that way and the good ones feel good. You’ll see a good fit and you’ll feel a tight and substantial feel to a good laptop. The good laptops use lightweight but heavy-duty composite materials in their construction, and you can tell it. The junk stuff will feel cheap, with it’s light and too thin plastic case being overly flexible, sometimes not fitting well and with the display screen being loose and floppy rather than snug and firm. After you look at a few, you’ll be a much better judge and should easily be able to tell the difference between good and bad. You’ll also be able to pick up on all the different features and personal preferences you might not have realized were important to you till you saw and tried them, such as the type of mouse pointer it has, the resolution and clarity of the screen, the weight of the system and the other important features, standard equipment, options and miscellaneous items that may be important to you.

Read the consumer report magazine reports. It seems that one or the other of these magazines is always running articles on rating laptops - and most of the same laptop brands and models that are good are usually in the top 10, month in and month out.

A word of caution: Most laptop manufacturers offer more than one model. Even within a single manufacturer’s laptop lineup you may find good and bad, from the low end to the high end of their product lineup. Name brand alone is NOT a sound way to make a decision. You need to know the difference.

A couple of good examples:

Compaq computers is a very well known and respected computer manufacturer. They produce some very high quality and desirable equipment, and in my opinion, offer some of the best tech support out there. However, due to some marketing decisions on their part over the past few years, they are also marketing some cheap equipment now too, that (again in my humble opinion) does not cut it. Their high end stuff is some of the best – but their low end is also definitely NOT very good (only my personal opinion), excellent support or not! Who wants to be on the phone all the time, nice people or not!?

Generally speaking, Toshiba has had a reputation for a great laptop computer, often receiving high marks from the computer magazines that rate them. I USED TO like Toshiba laptops, until I learned how poor their support system actually was. Among several other things, batteries for the high-end models of theirs computers that we own have not been available for over a year, continuing on national backorder for all that time. We had other support problems with them too. Their laptops computers were extremely difficult to upgrade the operating system from Windows 95 to 98. All kinds of abnormal problems resulted. They were not dependable to return phone calls for support or letters either, including a certified letter that took SEVEN months to hear back on, and then with unsatisfactory results. Needless to say, from our experiences, we won’t be purchasing or recommending Toshiba’s to anyone - And I am NOT worried about liability for these statements because they are completely factual and can easily be proven!

There are numerous different name brand laptops available. Among them are: Acer, Compaq, Dell, Gateway, IBM, Jetta, Hewlett-Packard, Micron, Sony, Toshiba, Winbook  - and there are lots more.

However, rather than recommending any one particular name over another, because there are so many different makes and models out there, I’m going to give you the specifications and what I believe you should be looking for in a laptop.

There are also many good suppliers of laptops, but just because I’ve mentioned some manufacturers here does not suggest that I recommend them above others. The laptops mentioned here are just good examples of some that I’ve had personal exposure to. You’ll have to decide for yourself which one best fits your needs. It can be a highly personal choice with all the decisions that are necessary to accommodate your needs, interest, usage and preferences.

Bargain hunting – BE VERY CAREFUL! Don’t get caught purchasing a NEW but older obsolete model laptop that won’t do the job. Laptop models (and their prices) traditionally have been changing much more rapidly than desktops due to technology improvements and due to a laptop’s “built in” and highly proprietary nature. Manufacturers of desktop clone units have much greater flexibility. They can usually work improvements into their existing systems. However, laptops manufacturers often can’t upgrade just one component to meet the latest technology improvements and keep up with the competition. The whole laptop often must be changed to accommodate the advancement or the trendy necessary improvement. It’s not uncommon to see a model nomenclature (and/or major price adjustment) change in as little as three months in laptops. Manufacturers and Dealers need to unload laptop computers that are no longer competitive spec-wise so they discount them big-time. The only problem (sometimes) is that with the outdated model, and with the rapid increase in necessary specs for software, you might not get enough specs to do the job. Beware and be warned.

Ultra-light weight and thin-line design have become very trendy with laptops. Normal weight of a laptop has hovered at around six to seven pounds for a few years now but three and a half pound computers are available now. These thin-line lightweight features are available and present in some of the top model line-ups now. However, the lighter and thinner you go, the more features you might be loosing, such as floppy and/or CD-ROM drive being external rather than internal, smaller display screens, smaller keyboards, thinner, less hardy, more breakable cases, etc. Additional, the more micro you go, the slower the actual performance, regardless of rated speeds. Be careful what you wish for.

Laptop service and Warranty - Also proprietary. Factory warranties vary in length of time fro one year to three years, depending on the manufacturer.  - A laptop computer exclusively uses Microelectronics. There are not many modular plug in pieces as is in desktops.  Desktops have separate component boards that plug-in to the motherboard - but a laptop generally uses a single board, containing micro sized parts and pieces for all functions, making that one board VERY expensive to replace. Additionally, due to the uniqueness of each make and model, it requires more specialized and specific training; knowledge and ability with the particular make and model. That costs more too. A couple of examples: 1). If a video chip fails in a laptop, usually the whole main board will have to be replaced. Cost for a typical main board on a laptop = $600 to $800.00 (or even more). Cost for a typical replaceable video card on a desktop= under $100. A display on a premium laptop model typically costs $700-$900. A monitor for a desktop= $150 to 350. Laptops are a LOT more expensive to repair. Make sure you get a good warranty with it – and when handling your laptop loosely, try to remember that warranty will NOT pay for a cracked case or broken display screen!

Following are the specifications that I suggest for a Laptop Computer System for Real Estate Agents - and for General Overall Computing:

These are only my personal opinions and recommendations. They are directed to personnel in the real estate business using their computers primarily for real estate business because that's where I have spent most of my time working on computers and computer technology related systems. Others that you ask may feel differently than I do about what's discussed here. Consider the source of advice to you and their level of expertise very carefully. There are many self-proclaimed experts in this field that really are not familiar with your needs and therefore are not qualified to advise you. There are also specific exceptions to every rule. These are only suggestions based on very general conditions. I will not be responsible or liable for what you do with the contents of this article and for any decision you might make.


Laptop technology changes very rapidly. These suggested specs are as of November, 2001. If you purchase more than 3 to 6 months after this date, the specs should be re-visited. Though I believe we’ve leveled off to a degree from the technological leaps of the past few years, still, only one thing is certain in the computer industry. Change. By the time you read this article, some new development, marketing strategy or technology will have changed and will probably make some part of this article inaccurate. So “Caveat Emptor”! Be careful. 

These specs are neither a MINIMUM nor MAXIMUM suggestion. They are for a GOOD quality system that will run most normal mass-produced software without problems. Both higher and lower specs are available from most manufacturers. There may be variances in performance between different laptop manufacturers, even with all the specs being exactly identical. And, sometimes an older production model at a bargain price, with fewer specs might work just fine. However, the below specs have been verified. It is suggested that you test the system prior to purchase. Please carefully read the Notes and Comments preceding these recommendations.

One thing to remember: MORE AND FASTER IS ALWAYS BETTER!   Purchase the highest level that you can afford to minimize it becoming obsolete so quickly.

I disclaim any liability for these suggestions. These specs are only my personal opinion and are furnished only to assist you with making your own decision. Others may have different opinions. You are the final judge.


Component  - - - - Specification  - - - - Notes/Comments:

CPU Processor  - - - - - 1 GHz. Intel CPU Only - - - - "Intel"  chipsets are recommended. A less expensive Intel Celeron type processor will work okay and even a 500 MHz. speed (1/2 as fast) will work - but expect it to perform much slower, not accessing or running your programs as satisfactorily or as fast. You should always purchase the fastest CPU that your budget will allow.

RAM Memory - - - - 128 K - - - - You should leave a slot remaining available for later expansion to the maximum the machine can handle (at least 256k) or as much as your budget can afford.

Hard drive - - - - 20 Gigahertz, minimum - - - - Software size is growing. 30 Gigs or more is better. Real estate associates usually use a lot of photos and graphics. These require a lot of storage space. Bigger is better - up to the limit of your budget.

CD ROM Drive   - - - - 24X to 52X speeds are available  - - - - DVD drives are an option but are only necessary if you are going to be watching DVD movies on your computer. This is a $170 to $200 additional extra cost option on most laptops.

Display Screen  - - - -  14" to 15" TFT Active Matrix  - - - -  Display size is a matter of personal preference. However, TFT/Active matrix technology an absolutely necessary requirement if you will have others looking at your laptop with you from an angle.

Modem  - - - -  56k V.90 Built-in Internal  - - - - Use a PCMCIA card if a built-in modem is not available but make sure it does not contain a Rockwell chip.

Network Interface Card  - - - - 10/100 mps speed  - - - - Optional - - - - You'll need this card if your office is connected to a network, such as the Wide Area Network our company has been putting in each of our offices, and if you wish to access it with your computer. Either a built-in or a plug-in (credit card sized) PCMCIA NIC card is acceptable.

Current laptop costs: Prices for laptops vary widely. However, there is a "price war" going on right now between some of the major manufacturers. Low end Laptops are available for as little as $1100.00 and the premium models can be had for as little as $2500.00 with some careful shopping.

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